Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Word of the Week: Goblin

From Francisco Goya's
Los Caprichos (1799).
Goblins abound in fantasy literature, from Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market to George MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin to J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit to Tyger Tyger, the book I reviewed last week, but where does the word come from? And what is a goblin?

Goblins come in many shapes and sizes and temperaments, ranging from grotesquely evil to mischievous and annoying. Tolkien's goblins, later rechristened orcs, lean in the evil direction while MacDonald's goblins lean the other way. Goblins are typically small, ranging from a few inches to the stature of a dwarf. In some stories, they possess magical abilities.

I assumed the word had a Germanic or Norse origin but it's antecedents are not so easily traced, which seems strangely appropriate for such a creature. One line dates the word's first recorded usage to the fourteenth century and traces it to the old French word gobelin derived from Gobelinus, a spirit said to haunt Évreux, a region in Normandy in northern France. Another theory relates goblin to the German word kobold--meaning household goblin--derived from the Medieval Latin term cabalus from the Greek words kobalos--a rogue or knave--and kobaloi--the wicked spirits that rogues invoked. Kobold was also used by silver miners in the Harz Mountains in northern Germany to refer to rock containing arsenic and sulfur. The contaminants degraded the ore and made the miners sick.


  1. In my current WiP, "goblins" are cannibalistic mutants who roam in packs, seeking whom they may devour. So pleasant.

    Did you get my email address?

  2. Yes, I got your email address and responded on the 16th. I've resent with a longer subject line.

  3. I love word origins. Once I wanted a word to describe the magic in a world I was writing about and did a little research. I thought "dweomer" was a real term for such a thing, only to find out it's a Dungeons and Dragons invention, taken from the Old English term "dwergma" which means something like "dwarf songs." Now what, I would like to know, is the meaning behind that? What a story, just about these "dwarf songs."


  4. I like these word origin posts. :) I always thought of the goblins in MacDonald's work (at least the Princess and the Goblin) as evil as well...with perhaps more of a foolish penchant for wrongdoing than the intentional evil of Tolkien's orcs, but rather black-hearted and malicious nevertheless.

    I certainly didn't know that origins of the word were so unclear...pretty interesting stuff!

  5. I had no idea that Googling "latin word for goblin" would bring me to such an interesting site! Great content. Thanks for the info on the word's origin. I've called my baddies "goblins" for years, but mine are way too big, and too feral. Maybe I'll dig for a new name.